The internet is responsible for reviving many things that should be extinct: men’s rights activism, the music career of Rick Astley and, less unpleasantly, everybody’s favourite endangered species, the sloth. Despite the fact they can barely drag themselves across a road, these smiley slow-coaches have somehow managed to take over the world wide web. Time Magazine has analysed “How Sloths Took Over Pop Culture”, and they are now regular cast members in Dreamworks and Disney films, as well as countless YouTube videos of them hanging out on washing lines, which rack up millions of hits.
This may be why, every time I mentioned my trip to Costa Rica, someone squealed: “Oh my god, stroke a sloth!” As it turns out, stroking sloths is a bad idea – entire populations of insects live inside their thick fur, plus they have a hard enough time getting around as it is – they don’t need us getting in their way. But if you want to spot one in the wild, Costa Rica is the place to be, because they can’t survive outside the sticky, wet climate of the Central American rainforest.
Your best bet is in a national park such as Manuel Antonio. This 60,000 acre area is teeming with wildlife, taking in both beaches and rainforest. It boasts 16,000 species of butterfly, more than the whole of Africa. There are only 3,000 white-faced squirrel monkeys in the world and, evidenced by the number of times I was tripped up by them, they’re all in Costa Rica. Add to that lizards, tarantulas, snakes and thousands of birds, and you’ll start to see this is no ordinary walk in the park.
“Ohhhh, oh, oh, oh, OH,” says an excitable child nearby, pointing way up into the canopy. We all rushed over, binoculars and inadequate camera phones aloft, all pointing at what was unmistakably a sloth. Not as cute as the internet variety, but a lot more graceful and dignified. In slow motion, he waved us on and, within about 10 minutes, we’d got what we travelled 10 hours for.
While sloth-mania may account for some of the upturn in traffic to this part of the world, the other side of the story is the rise of the adventure holiday. Travellers don’t want to relax by the sea anymore, they abseil into it off the side of cliffs. And Costa Rica’s bounteous, wildlife-filled landscape is worth travelling for.
And it’s considerably easier than it used to be as British Airways became the second travel company to run direct flights there in April (Thomson is the other one), and it’s the only airline to fly directly to the capital, San Jose. Before that, you used to have to transfer in the US, with all the security broohaha that entails.
I arrived on BA’s first flight and was promptly greeted by the President of Costa Rica – these new flights are big business, estimated to bring another 80,000 sloth-seeking Brits to their shores a year. And the country’s already seen a 20 per cent year-on-year rise in tourists from the UK, so get in now, before we start opening Irish pubs or send Boris over on a state visit. We might not be allowed back after that.
For now, though, it’s surprisingly unspoiled and only the North Americans have made their mark. Alta Gracia, my first hotel of the trip just outside the multicultural town of San Isidro, is a distinctively modern resort. Its secluded palapas – private villas – sit at an altitude of 1,200m, affording vistas of green peaks, like endless pinched heads of broccoli as far as the eye can see. It’s a polished offering, if lacking in local character, but it more than makes up for that with a stable full of handsome horses to gallop over the hills on. My horse was pregnant, so it was more of a gentle saunter to the nearest farm, with stops for snacking on the way.
For luxury accommodation in harmony with the landscape, there’s nothing in Costa Rica quite like Nayara Springs, where 90 per cent of the rooms overlook Arenal volcano and some even have in-room hot springs. It also serves the best food, at both its plush velvet- chaired restaurant Amor Loco and open-air Asian-Peruvian fusion bar Altamira.
Nearby Arenal Manoa had similarly impressive views, but I spent most of that night being violently sick, which slightly hampered my enjoyment. A short drive away is Parador in Isla Damas, a former banana plantation in the 1950s and now an old-world, colonial-style resort with a decent spa, but an outdated approach to everything else. There was an entire wall filled with photos of famous guests, a bit like an Italian diner in New Jersey, although the only people I recognised were a porn star (don’t judge me) and Charlie Sheen. That must have been an eventful night.
Having somewhere nice to stay in Costa Rica is great, but if you’re not outside 80 per cent of the time, then you’re doing it wrong. Other ways to get involved with the landscape include kayaking through the crab- and bat-infested mangroves – not easy for a beginner – or whizzing through the canopy on an exhilarating zipline.
As I clung to a rope suspended several hundred feet above the earth, all of life bustling below me in the trees, I thought, hmmm, I could hang out here for a while. And if I move slowly and grow enough hair, the internet might even make me star.
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